Breakfast on the Paradise
The Paradise breakfast buffet, although not one our preferred buffet experiences, was appropriate to the quality level of the vessel. I’ve tasted better noodle soup; Don’s omelet was a bit watery; no healthier bread or bran choices and only fair pastry. But enough variety and nourishment for our day of biking and kayaking in the bay.
Day Boat to Cat Cat Island
After breakfast we board a tender that takes us to a smaller day boat where we meet passengers from the other Paradise cruiser, including the people we met on the bus ride to Ha Long Bay. While we are on the day boat and visiting the island, the cruise ships will go back to the main dock to drop off passengers and pick up new ones. We cruise through channels of more spectacular rock formations; I can’t stop taking pictures. The day is still gray but not cold.
By 10:00am we are cycling our way to Viet Hai village on Cat Cat Island. The concrete road is in good shape and the cycling pleasant, first following the edge of the island before heading inland through the vegetation covered hills and planted valleys.
We pass through Viet Hai and end up at a pavilion where we sit around chatting, some drinking beer others soft drinks or water. Fortunately the group from the other boat is an entertaining mix of native English speakers. Otherwise I’m not sure what the intended purpose of this little village excursion was supposed to be.
It starts to drizzle and we need to head back to the boat for lunch. The way is not far – it only took longer getting to the village because we stopped so many times to take pictures- none the less we are thoroughly damp upon our return to the dock. I can barely see through my fogged-up glasses.
Over the course of the morning our guide has mentioned several times that at lunch today we will have the opportunity to use chop sticks. I don’t know where he thinks we have been eating before arriving on this boat trip, but as promised the large dining room table for the 12 of us is set Asian style with chop sticks and small bowls instead of plates.
They serve us fried springs rolls (that we now all know how to make after the previous day’s demonstration), prawns cooked in a clay pot, chicken in a mild curry sauce, pork slices in a mild flavored red sauce, stir-fried bok choy, rice and a fabulous fish soup. While most of the dishes were good but light on flavor the fish soup was outstanding. Cooked in a rich broth, with nice chunks of fish, tomatoes, pineapple and seasoned with dill.
After lunch we sip coffee and chat, while we pass through more amazing scenery to our kayaking destination. I finally have less of an urge to pop up every couple of minutes to snap more photos.
We learned a few things from the previous evening’s kayaking experience. Most importantly, you do get wet and you could fall in. So we wore our bathing suits and took only the waterproof camera (you can guess what’s coming). We are free to paddle around and see up close the stone towers we’ve been gawking at from afar.
The formations are also eroding from the bottom, creating caves and tunnels that lead to interior lagoons. Don and I enter one such cave thinking it is just a cave but as we turn the corner, suddenly there is sunlight and we find ourselves in a secluded lagoon with myriad small fish and less trash than in some of the other areas. Sadly these waters are polluted with a visible shiny film on the surface.
Returning back through the passage way, still engrossed in the magic of the small lagoon our kayak starts to tip over, pulled by the lead rope snagging on the bottom, and before we realize what is happening we are both dumped in the four-foot deep water. Fortunately the water is clear enough that we can see the camera on the lagoon floor and fish it out. Unfortunately the bottom is covered in sharp barnacles making it difficult to find stable footing to get back in the kayak. We manage to get back in soaked but laughing knowing we have dry clothes back on the boat.
Again we say good bye to our new friends and board our main boat now filled with a large French tour group.
The dinner menu is similar to the evening before, a mushroom vegetable soup, shrimp sausage grilled on sugar cane skewers, stuffed squid, and the oddest dish – moist well cooked slices of chicken breast served over the same cold fancy-cut French fries as the previous night with Thousand Island dressing and a side of cauliflower and broccoli. Clearly there is a lack of inspiration if you are using salad dressing as your meat sauce. Dessert was a delightful banana filled crepe with chocolate sauce.
Thien Canh Son Cave
Although these cruises say they are three days two nights you really only spend one full day and two half days on the bay. After breakfast on the second morning there is one last activity, the visit to the most beautiful cave (as the Vietnamese guides calls it) of Ha Long Bay. Thien Canh Son.
It’s one of the most popular stops on the many tours that pass through the bay – so popular that Paradise now visits the cave in the morning before the day trippers arrive in the afternoon. It’s an impressive cave system with three large rooms. Not the biggest or most interesting cave I’ve ever seen but definitely worth taking a spin through.
As we head back to the dock, the channel is thick with day junks heading out. The weather is still a misty gray. We were hoping it just might clear for a different view on the way back, but it’s not to be this trip. I’ve read that this time of year it can stay like this for long stretches.
Another three-hour drive back to Hanoi with a lunch stop at one of the horrible tourist-shop centers. Outrageous prices. $3US for a bowl of soup noodles and $4 for stir-fried noodles.
Back in Hanoi
Back in hectic Hanoi we head for Café Five for chocolate cake and lemon ginger tea. Despite the crazy uncivilized traffic scene on the street, you can slip into a café for a lovely piece of cake and coffee. Consistently moist, rich and not too sweet. Almost tempts me to stay just a bit longer. Almost.
Febuary 23-25, 2011
For links to all the posts in this series see the Vietnam page.